ST. PETERSBURG — Barring the Orioles dropping four or more of their final six games against the last-place Nationals and Red Sox, the Rays have lost any chance to capture the American League East, even if they win out.
A more topical subject of conversation is who the Rays, who clinched the top wild-card spot and are 95-62, are likely to play — and who they should like to play — in the best-of-three, one-site Wild Card Series they are likely hosting next week at Tropicana Field.
Don’t expect to hear them say much this week about their preferences from the four candidates to finish as the second wild card, which — in order of probability going into Monday’s games — are the Blue Jays, Astros, Mariners, Rangers.
For one, it’s already odd enough that the Rays just played the Jays, finish the regular season against them this weekend in Toronto, then could face them again in the playoffs starting two days later. There’s no reason to say anything that could be twisted to provide motivation.
Plus, the Rays may have learned from last year.
There was enough chatter that it became clear they felt they matched up better with AL Central winner Cleveland than the wild-card-leading Jays (or the Mariners).
And after losing their last five regular-season games once they clinched a playoff spot to finish as the third wild card, that is exactly what they got.
But it didn’t work out too well when the Rays were swept in Cleveland, losing 2-1 and 1-0 in 15 innings.
As one Rays person said Sunday, after last year they don’t even want to think about, much less say out loud, who they prefer to play. Another suggested it would be whichever team played the worst at the Trop this year.
But we’re here for the speculation, as the Rays’ opponent will be the second wild-card team, which will be impacted by who wins the AL West race.
Matchups are part of that, as are the schedule and momentum based on how intense and taxing the battles are this week.
The Mariners, for example, went into play Monday a half game out of the final wild-card spot and will be playing for their lives pretty much every day, hosting the Astros and Rangers, and would have to make a cross-country flight after Sunday’s game to face the Rays on Tuesday.
The Astros, who have lost nine of 12, including being swept at home over the weekend by the 102-loss Royals, go from Seattle to facing the NL wild-card contending Diamondbacks.
The Rangers, who won five straight to reclaim the AL West lead, meet the sub-.500 Angels before facing the Mariners, and if they stumble back into the wild-card field would have the same long flight.
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The Jays, who built a two-game lead for the No. 5 seed, might actually have the easiest path to the Trop, facing the Yankees and the Rays, who by the weekend may be focused more on resting their top relievers and getting many of their hobbled players healthy.
Below is a statistical breakdown of the four potential opponents. Here is our summation:
• The Rangers, given starting pitching issues and poor play at the Trop earlier, and despite the potential big bangs from their bats, look to be most beatable by the Rays, but also the least likely to end up at the Trop given their AL West lead.
• Next best for the Rays would seem to be the Mariners, who can pitch very, very well but don’t pose much of an offensive threat. If the Rays can match them on the mound and tighten up their defense, they should be able to keep it close and hope to rally late, benefiting from the experience of their majors-most 11 walkoffs.
• Though the Astros seem to be in the worst shape, they have that veteran core, front-end starters led by trade deadline pickup Justin Verlander and the confidence to flip a switch when it matters most, which seems somewhat intimidating.
• Which leaves the Blue Jays as seemingly the biggest threat to the Rays, given their front-end starters, balanced lineup, athleticism, strong bullpen and solid play at the Trop.
A look at the four potential opponents, all totals through Sunday (with RpG for runs per game), in our ranking of easiest to toughest:
Vs. Rays overall: 4-2
Vs. Rays at Trop: 1-2
Allowed vs. Rays overall: 4.15 ERA, .732 OPS
Allowed vs. Rays at Trop: 6.48 ERA, .810 OPS
Produced vs. Rays overall: .219 avg., .720 OPS, 4.5 RpG
Produced vs. Rays at Trop: .200 avg., .696 OPS, 4.7 RpG
Notable: Rangers swept in Texas during Rays’ July swoon without hitting much. … Lowe brothers (Josh and Nathaniel) battle Round 2 would be interesting. … Top starters Nathan Eovaldi and Jon Gray have career 5.00 and 4.15 ERAs at Trop.
Vs. Rays overall: 3-4
Vs. Rays at Trop: 1-3
Allowed vs. Rays overall: 5.93 ERA, .798 OPS
Allowed vs. Rays at Trop: 5.08 ERA, .786 OPS
Produced vs. Rays overall: .242 avg., .740 OPS, 4.6 RpG
Produced vs. Rays at Trop: .205 avg, .607 OPS, 3.3 RpG
Notable: Mariners .607 OPS at Trop is lowest of all AL parks. … Top starters Luis Castillo and George Kirby can dominate, were 2-0, 3.56 in four starts vs. Rays. … From 50-50 on July 24, Mariners had a 25-6 run.
Vs. Rays overall: 3-3
Vs. Rays at Trop: 2-1
Allowed vs. Rays overall: 2.36 ERA, .724 OPS
Allowed vs. Rays at Trop: 2.77 ERA, .593 OPS
Produced vs. Rays overall: .274 avg., .790 OPS, 5.2 RpG
Produced vs. Rays at Trop: .225 avg., .665 OPS, 3.0 RpG
Notable: Astros on April 25 were first team to beat Rays at Trop this season. … Verlander was reacquired Aug. 1. … Mostly right-handed pitching less of an issue vs. Rays with Brandon Lowe and maybe Luke Raley out.
Blue Jays (87-69)
Vs. Rays overall: 5-5
Vs. Rays at Trop: 3-4
Allowed vs. Rays overall: 4.36 ERA, .772 OPS
Allowed vs. Rays at Trop: 4.37 ERA, .797 OPS
Produced vs. Rays overall at Trop: .294 avg., .834 OPS, 6.3 RpG
Produced vs. Rays at Trop: .312 avg, .885 OPS, 7.3 RpG
Notable: Jays’ offensive totals include 20-1 win on May 23 at Trop with 10 runs off position players. … Jays lefties allowed a 1.023 OPS at Trop; George Springer has a 1.030 OPS there. … Middle relief seems vulnerable.
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